Gabriel Figueroa

The dramatically lighted caves of Cacahuamilpa in the film "Macario" are an example of the craftsmanship of Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. (Televisa Foundation / LACMA)

Aside from Mayan temples and Emiliano Zapata's mustachioed visage, perhaps nothing is more emblematic of Mexico's mysterious grandeur than the films of Gabriel Figueroa.

In a career that consisted of more than 200 movies in multiple genres, made in Mexico and Hollywood with some of the leading directors and actors of his time, Figueroa crafted a lasting national iconography. The cinematographer's monumental shots of burnished landscapes and close-ups of campesinos' weathered, earnest faces are as instantly recognizable to his countrymen as the great murals of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco.

Rivera, in fact, referred to Figueroa as "the fourth muralist," distinguished by his epic-sized, dramatically lighted compositions in such cinematic masterpieces as "Flor Silvestre" (Wild Flower, 1943), "Maria Candelaria" (1944) and "Enamorada" (A Woman in Love, 1946). In a country shattered by a revolution that claimed 1 million lives, Figueroa and his artistic contemporaries hammered out a heroically idealized yet sympathetically perceptive vision of nationhood and selfhood, what Figueroa called "una imágen méxicana."

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"All of them [were] engaged in that same project, of picturing Mexican history and Mexican identity, on a scale and for the populace," says Britt Salvesen, curator of the photography and prints and drawings departments at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She and Rita Gonzalez, LACMA associate curator of contemporary art, of the co-curated LACMA's exhibition "Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa — Art and Film," which opens Sept. 22 and runs through Feb. 2.

Yet the popular perception of Figueroa as a patriotic mythmaker obscures the virtuosity of his craftsmanship and the variety of his influences: Renaissance forced perspectives, German Expressionist cinema, Goya's prints and the euphoric landscape paintings of José María Velasco.

Born in 1907 in Mexico City, Figueroa had something of a Dickensian upbringing. His mother died soon after giving birth to him. His father then fled to Paris, where he eventually succumbed to alcohol and despair. Figueroa was raised by relatives; at age 16, he landed a job in a commercial photography studio before finding his way into Mexico's expanding film industry.

Later, working with directors as disparate as Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, Luis Buñuel, Roberto Gavaldón, John Ford, Don Siegel and John Huston, Figueroa repeatedly modified his highly controlled, choreographic style to fit various genres, from folkloric melodramas and historical epics to telenovelas and film noir.

But as the LACMA exhibition demonstrates with video clips, still photos and an accompanying film series, he always retained certain visual signatures: startling collisions of light and darkness, mainly captured in black and white imagery; unfurling clouds shot through infrared filters to enhance their surreal majesty; sculptural silhouettes and symmetrical rows of plants, people and inanimate objects; moody panoramas of deserts or a chaotically modernizing Mexico City, notably in Buñuel's "Los Olvidados" (The Young and the Damned, 1950).

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Gonzalez says the exhibition's contrasting views of Figueroa's prolific output "challenge the visitor to really think about, 'OK, he was a master at these Mexican skies and naturalismand realism.' But he also really did some amazing work that showed the influence of film noir, showed the influence of a great cinematographer like Gregg Toland, his mentor."

It was Toland, director of photography for "Citizen Kane," who referred Figueroa to Ford, another great mythologizer of monumental landscapes and manifest destinies. That helped Figueroa land the job as cinematographer on Ford's "The Fugitive" (1947), based on Grahame Greene's novel "The Power and the Glory," about a whiskey priest fleeing the anticlerical Mexican regime, and starring Henry Fonda, Dolores del Rio and Pedro Armendáriz.

During the golden age of Mexican cinema and the Hollywood studio system, Figueroa kept company with big-screen royalty: Del Rio, Armendáriz, María Félix, Ninón Sevilla. He trained his camera on Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr romping on the Pacific Coast in Huston's 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana."

A previous version of the exhibition was shown in 2008 at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Once again, the show's main source of materials is the Televisa Foundation, a sibling organization of Mexico's gargantuan Televisa film and television production empire.

But LACMA's exhibition, being co-presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been significantly re-worked for a predominantly U.S. viewership. In keeping with a strategy employed for its massive recent Stanley Kubrick retrospective, LACMA is using other art works, including some from its permanent collection, to flesh out various themes in "Under the Mexican Sky."

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For example, to help interpret the folkloric and nationalistic motifs in movies such as "Maria Candelaria," starring Del Rio as a self-sacrificing indigenous woman, LACMA is displaying Rivera's painting "Flower Day" (1925), a beatific and ennobling depiction of Indian peasants.

The exhibition also looks at how works by non-Mexican artists, such as photographers Edward Weston and Tina Modotti and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, contributed to notions of Mexican identity that Figueroa and his contemporaries built on. A future LACMA film series will explore the influence of Figueroa, who died in 1997, on such contemporary filmmakers as Mexico's Carlos Reygadas and Nicolás Pereda.

The exhibition also includes works examining Figueroa's effect on contemporary Mexican and Chicano visual artists. Among them are performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña's investigations of the charro, a traditional Mexican horseman, as a masculine archetype. Toward the end of the show, there's a video piece by Melanie Smith and Rafael Ortega, "Aztec Stadium. Malleable Deed." It depicts 3,000 students, seated at Mexico City's massive soccer arena, struggling to form gigantic graphic images from their individually hand-held placards.

"It is this notion about the kind of failure when the nation is putting so much effort into producing this unified vision of itself through images," Gonzalez says. "So it's sort of a postmodern coda to Figueroa."